Tom Gilson

Syncretism at Home

My monthly column is up now at BreakPoint:

Syncretism (noun): “the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.”

I first heard of syncretism in a seminary course on missions that I took many years ago. It plagues missionaries across the world. New peoples in new places come to faith in Christ, but their old religion dies hard, and their old customs linger. Before long they become set in new patterns, more Christian than the old, but still not fully and truly Christian.

Some South Americans make offerings to pagan gods along with Christian saints, even on the same altar. Followers of some Caribbean religions combine Christianity with animism or spiritism. Sun Myung Moon’s “Unification Church” combines aspects of Christianity with Buddhism and Confucianism. It’s a good thing we in the Western world don’t practice syncretism, isn’t it?

Not so fast.

[From Syncretism at Home]

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8 thoughts on “Syncretism at Home

  1. Is there any place for a positive syncretism? Meaning, supplanting/re-interpreting the traditions of other cultures in a Christian way?

  2. I think there is. Suppose there was a solstice celebration every 25th of December, and we made that into a day of celebrating Jesus’ birth. As long as it became a thoroughly Christian holiday, even if it borrowed customs and traditions from the old solstice celebration, that would be fine.

  3. Well, I set myself up for that one. 🙂

    What I meant is, what about doing that now? There are all kinds of modern trends, traditions and aspects of culture. Are there candidates, even in principle, for a similar kind of transformation?

  4. What about Independence Day (USA) or Canada Day(no suprise, that’s Canadian, eh?)

    Halloween? that could sure use a Christianizing influence.

  5. Crude,

    Leslie Newbigin in his book The Open Secret looks at the theology of mission. His thoughts on allowing the culture of the people being evangelised to shape the form and practise of new churches rather than the missionaries culture are very interesting. It’s worth a read, many of the lessons learned in cross-cultural missions could be applicable in evangelism, especially for those of us who are living in post-Christian cultures.

  6. Victoria,

    Thinking in terms of holidays is absolutely one way to do it. We’ve seen Christmas become more secularized (though even that isn’t enough for some), and that’s where a lot of the conversation takes place. I’d wonder how to ‘Christianize’ independence day, or even Halloween. I think one problem there is it’s very easy for the attempt to be really hokey and lame, like, “Instead of giving out candy, we’re giving out bible tracts at this house! Woohoo!” But there should definitely be far better alternatives.

    Maybe another alternative would simply be to come up with new holidays altogether, even on such days. That’s a quasi-syncretism.


    Thanks for the recommendation. I now and then read David Marshall’s blog, and one thing that intrigued me was his treatment of how Christianity spreads among non-Christians (accent on Asia) – I think some of the lessons that can be learned there can be put into practice even ‘at home’. Which sounds like something Newbigin is getting into by you how describe it.

    To tie this into Tom’s OP more – one way to counter the sort of syncretism he speaks of maybe with another kind of syncretism. So it may not be just a matter of avoiding or rejecting some aspects of culture, but actively promoting another in ways people tend to overlook.

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